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DOI approves expansion of Colorado mine that feeds Tri-State plant

The U.S. Department of the Interior has approved the expansion of operations at the Colowyo mine, a vital source of coal for a Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc. coal plant.

The DOI's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released a finding of no significant impact for the mine in northwestern Colorado, according to a document dated Jan. 17.

The OSMRE found the effects on the human environment of the plant were not highly uncertain and did not involve unique or unknown risks, and found the cumulative effects of the expansion project on climate change were negligible.

Mike McInnes, CEO of Tri-State, said in a release that the decision is important to the future of its member electric cooperatives and the people they serve. "Our member electric cooperatives will continue to access a reliable fuel supply and the economic benefits from mining operations will be sustained for northwest Colorado communities," he said.

A federal appeals court had vacated an earlier decision in June 2016 that limited expansion at the Colowyo and nearby Trapper mines due to a legal challenge from WildEarth Guardians.

Jeremy Nichols, the environmental group's climate and energy program director, told S&P Global Market Intelligence that WildEarth Guardians was disappointed to see the DOI give the industry another "rubber stamp."

Tri-State mentioned it had donated 4,543 acres of high-priority sagebrush habitat to Colorado Parks and Wildlife to manage priority habitat for the greater sage-grouse and gave $150,000 to the agency to bolster research on the ground-nesting bird.

Nichols calls this a scam, however. "On the whole they're destroying more sage-grouse habitat than protecting," he said. He added that WildEarth Guardians is leaning in the direction of challenging the decision.

"Our only recourse now is to go to federal court," he said.

Tri-State said the expansion would allow for continuing mining operations that provide 220 jobs, a $200 million impact on the regional economy and $12 million in tax revenues at the local, state and federal levels.

"Tri-State is thankful for the strong bipartisan support the project received from the community and elected officials at all levels," McInnes said. "We are also grateful for the hard work of state and federal officials that did a complete and thorough job in their assessments of the project."

Information from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said the Colowyo mine produced 597,615 tons in the fourth quarter of 2016 and nearly 1.9 million tons in all of 2016.